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"I feel a giddy sickness of strange awe": Chillingworth, Cenci, and the Silent Pleasure of Pain.


There is good evidence to suggest that Nathaniel Hawthorne deeply admired the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Early in his career, he clearly studied Shelley's writing closely, checking out a volume of his works from the Salem Athenaeum on two separate occasions: first on July 22, 1833, then on June 23, 1835 (Kesselring 47). Later, Hawthorne bestowed high praise on Shelley in his own fiction. In his 1844 tale, "Earth's Holocaust," for example, he writes: "[M]ethought Shelley's poetry emitted a purer light than almost any other productions of his day" (10:397). And in "P.'s Correspondence" (1845) Hawthorne articulates the consequence of such "light": an oeuvre whose best work "rest[s] upon the threshold of the heavens" (10:372).

Given Hawthorne's high esteem for the British Romantic poet, it is little wonder that he would pay particularly close attention to what Shelleyans have often considered "the most significant serious play of its century written in English" (Curran 33): Shelley's Cenci (1819). Highly controversial in its time, The Cenci stages the crucial events preceding Beatrice Cenci's legendary sixteenth-century death: rape by her father, Francesco; his murder at her instigation; and her subsequent death sentence by a Papal court. In his preface to the work, Shelley dwelled with special emphasis on a portrait he encountered at the Palazzo Colonna in 1818. It portrays a young woman from the waist up, wrapped in turban and white, flowing drapery and bearing an expression that, Shelley said, emanated a blend of "exquisite loveliness and deep sorrow" to produce a countenance "inexpressibly pathetic" (144). Though of uncertain origin and attribution, this portrait was thought, when it attained a nineteenth-century cult status, to be of Beatrice Cenci, painted by the celebrated Guido Reni just prior to Beatrice's execution. Hawthorne, while residing in Rome, was similarly mesmerized. After viewing the painting for himself, he replicated Shelley's praise, calling the portrait "the very saddest picture that was ever painted" (14:92). The portrait's presence in The Marble Faun (1860) is, consequently, keenly felt.

For this reason, perhaps, scholars who have analyzed Hawthorne's textual engagement with Shelley have frequently centered their inquiries almost exclusively on how The Cenci resonates through The Marble Faun. Such analysis has often entailed a tracing of explicit textual links, so that features of The Marble Faun become a kind of roman a clef for the Cenci story. Thus, for example, Frederick Crews sees Miriam as a sort of stand-in for Beatrice Cenci, whose history unlocks the closed door of Miriam's unspeakable past (227-28). More recently, critics like Charles Watts have been attentive to the peculiarly refracting quality that Shelley's version of Beatrice Cenci had on both Miriam's and Hilda's interrelated portrayals. Watts suggests a triangulation of Beatrice, Miriam, and Hilda so that both Miriam and Hilda perform versions of Beatrice, even as they become "doubles" of each other, thus "interpenetrating an innocence with an experience of vision" to establish the "basis for the action of Hawthorne's novel" (445). While such a tracing out of correspondences has, to a degree, been illuminating, the methodological approach that seeks textual parallelism as its interpretive end has also tended to suffer from the limitations integral to such a self-contained approach to source study.

More interesting, arguably, than a delineation of relatively straightforward correspondences is the discernment of what I will call, following John Sallis, a more diffuse set of "textual echoes": reverberations of "semantic or syntactic elements" that move in less predictable fashion across texts and time to enrich new works in surprising ways (12-13). My interest, however, is less in the "excess of signification" (1) that Sallis notes as he considers the echo's proneness to semantic multiplicity than in Salis's recasting of the Thoreauvian echo. Provocatively, Sallis depicts such an echo as "an original.... from the original" (5)', so that it replicates the old in distinctly new terms. As an influence in the composing process, such an echo compellingly depicts how a young author can make an old author speak again in a new textual register that serves the specific rhetorical exigencies of a new work. Consequently, the cadences of an older work can be heard quietly or loudly echoing through that second author's language. What I mean by textual echoes as a term of comparative study is thus more delimited than nodes in an intertextual network or what Julia Kristeva has famously called tiles in a "mosaic of quotations" (37). The echo is "heteroglot" in the Bakhtinian sense, but not "socio-ideological[ly]" derived only (272). Textual echoes rather emphasize, without being entirely circumscribed by, acts of authorial agency for explicitly idiosyncratic purposes that are only partially explainable by the purely social operations of language that theoretical constructs like the Foucauldian "author function" emphasize ("What" 113-38). In the textual echo, a blending of the psychological with the social takes place to explain a newer text's refashioning and incorporation of its antecedent. This is not to say that the agent, the borrowing author, is entirely in control of his or her material, but it is to say that an influential work by one author can sound through the textuality of a second author in deliberate ways that help to sonically build that second author's project, its sound structures, beyond or beside the strategies of straightforward authorial attribution. Echoes appear, as a result, in unpredictable places, places that might seem, on initial encounter, unrelated to the seminal work whose presence yet reverberates through them, perhaps only softly. Such a work was Shelley's Cenci for Hawthorne, who dispersed aural fragments of the play across broad sections of his fiction.

Scholars of The Cenci's diffuse presence in Hawthorne's work--attentive to the echoes without calling them such--have noted their presence in less obvious places than The Marble Faun. For example, Sterling Eisiminger pauses in his analysis of "Ethan Brand" to note the "debt" The Blithedale Romance (1852), a work that has no apparent correspondence with sixteenth-century Italy, "owes" to Shelley's Cenci (4). Regrettably, he does not elaborate on precisely what this "debt" is. Martin F. Kearney has likewise observed how Hawthorne listened to Shelley's Cenci in a similarly unlikely work, "Rappaccini's Daughter" (1844), about which he concludes: "In Shelley, Hawthorne found the germ for his creation of a woman in whom purity and poison hopelessly intermingled through no fault of her own. Subsequently, a logical, dramatic progression is initiated, which leads to Beatrice Rappaccini's paradoxical nature and to her ultimate spiritual recognition." In other words, Beatrice Cenci's voice, the only means by which Shelley could have communicated the strange interplay of the desire to kill with the desire to retain innocence, informed the making of Beatrice Rappaccini, whose "paradoxical nature" and "spiritual recognition" were both drawn out of Shelley's seminal construction (Kearney 317).

Widening our sense of how Shelley's Cenci echoes through the Hawthorne canon, I seek to explore its reverberating presence in Hawthorne's most celebrated work, The Scarlet Letter (1850). In listening closely for The Cenci's echoes there, I seek to further answer that famous question posed to Hawthorne by his onetime landlord, George Stillman Hillard: "How comes it that with so thoroughly healthy an organization as you have, you have such a taste for the morbid anatomy of the human heart, and such knowledge of it too?" (qtd. in Herbert, Dearest xv). One teacher of the heart's perverse "anatomy" was, undoubtedly, Shelley's conception of Francesco Cenci, whose express sexual lust for his daughter vocalizes some of the most alarming words written in the nineteenth century. By listening closely to Francesco Cenci, I suggest we can gain access to the erotic life of Hawthorne's most famously "morbid" antagonist, Roger Prynne/Chillingworth. Using Francesco Cenci's dramatic lines to make Chillingworth's otherwise inaudible heart speak will provide a novel means to analyze his queer relationship with Arthur Dimmesdale. No Beatrice, however, Dimmesdale masochistically submits to Chillingworth's sadistic advances in mutually pleasurable encounters that, while not necessarily genitally engaged, are yet as sexual as the moment of Pearl's conception. Through the small deaths (petits morts) of Dimmesdale's painful pleasure in Chillingworth's private company, Dimmesdale readies himself for his most excruciating--and excruciatingly pleasurable--public performance culminating in an erotics of greatest release: the ecstasy of his own death. (2)

Queering the Bachelors

Fifty-three years after readers first beheld Dimmesdale's final confession in the marketplace, the well-known sexologist Havelock Ellis sounds very much like Hawthorne's narrator when he observes: "The relation of love to pain is one of the most difficult problems, and yet one of the most fundamental, in the whole range of sexual psychology. Why is it that love inflicts, and even seeks to inflict, pain? Why is it that love suffers pain, and even seeks to suffer it?" Then Ellis concludes: " [I]f we can succeed in answering [these questions,] we shall have come very near one of the great mysteries of love" (66). This passage querying the "mysteri[ous]" relationship of love with pain is especially striking for the way in which it paraphrases, with uncanny precision, some of the most crucial summary remarks in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne's narrator for instance muses:
   It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry whether hatred
   and love be not the same thing at bottom. Each, in its utmost
   development, supposes a high degree of intimacy and
   heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent for the food
   of his affections and spiritual life upon another; each leaves the
   passionate lover, or the no less passionate hater, forlorn and
   desolate by the withdrawal of his subject. Philosophically
   considered, therefore, the two passions seem essentially the same,
   except that one happens to be seen in a celestial radiance, and the
   other in a dusky and lurid glow. (1:260)

And then the narrator's musing takes a particular turn from general philosophizing to the specific matter of his story as he reflects on the posthumous fates of his male principals, Chillingworth and Dimmesdale: "In the spiritual world, the old physician and the minister ... may, unawares, have found their earthly stock of hatred and antipathy transmuted into golden love" (1:260-01). It is well possible, however, that the old physician and the minister did not have to wait so long.

Scholars who have studied the "high degree of intimacy" that Chillingworth and Dimmesdale share have, of late, come to recognize it as possessing an erotic dimension. But studies of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale's erotic rapport have yet to commit to the notion that this intimacy is, indeed, not just erotic but sexual, and not just sexual, but mutually satisfying. By recasting their relationship in explicitly sadomasochistic terms, though, we can see more clearly that the exchange between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, animus-ridden as it might be, is more than just charged with libidinal intent. It is, instead, defined by sexual congress--from stimulation, to sustained arousal, to release--whether or not genital contact is involved. Indeed, both men aim for, and achieve with each other, the heightened pleasure and satiety that are the goals of sadomasochistic pain.

The most convincing criticism to date on sadomasochism in The Scarlet Letter remains Christopher Newfield's "The Politics of Male Suffering: Masochism and Hegemony in the American Renaissance," which looks specifically at Dimmesdale's masochistic life, while, unfortunately, largely ignoring Chillingworth's role in that life. Within the parameters that Newfield sets for his study, the critique is trenchant. For example, he claims compellingly that "Dimmesdale's masochism ... dissolves the boundaries of his ego into those of the personae of his fantasy" (68). Dimmesdale's yielding to a pleasurable pain, in other words, opens him to a kind of sexual gratification less concerned with genital intensity and more preoccupied with the roleplaying--the occupying of alter-subjectivities in fantasy--that stands as an essential feature of sadomasochistic performance (Moser and Kleinplatz 4). Taking Dimmesdale's eroticism out of the realm of a purely genital sexuality provocatively readies him to become the bottom to Chillingworth's sadomasochistic top. This logical conclusion is precluded, however, by Newfield's conviction that the relationship of Chillingworth to Dimmesdale is essentially "that between dominant and submissive heterosexual men" (55), so that Chillingworth can never truly "top" Dimmesdale in a sexual exchange. Instead, Newfield deploys a feminization thesis to argue that Dimmesdale achieves power--not over Chillingworth but over Hester Prynne--counterintuitively: by letting her, in a sense, be his top so that he can dominate her from below, through the manipulation of his feminized subject position (60). Dimmesdale controls Prynne, in other words, by his suffering rather than an iron-fisted patriarchal attitude, and she responds with due diligence. Acquiring power through passivity, while also masochistically abdicating the prerogatives of traditional masculine privilege, Dimmesdale yet aligns himself with patriarchy to decide Prynne's fate. Against her desire for reunion with him, even in the beyond, he scolds her with his final breaths for the vanity of "hope that [they] could meet hereafter"; supine and dying, he remains an instrument of "the law" they "broke" (1:256). Dimmesdale thus, Newfield asserts, punishes Prynne in the end as patriarchy has all along, though through the attitudes and agency of a "feminized man" (57, 69). (3)

Newfield's reading of Dimmesdale's masochism is, to be sure, compelling up to a point, but to claim that the minister goes to the social margins in order to draw hegemonic strength requires some pretty heavy argumentative lifting. His defense of this circuitous path to power is founded, regrettably, on a psychoanalytic model whose doubleness renders it inchoate. Newfield explains that to achieve feminized patriarchal power Dimmesdale "reunites" or re-identifies "with the mother" through masochistic feminization as "punish[ment] ... for resembling the father." Yet, at the same time, he also "retains the father by imagining his mother to be denying the son's alliance with her, and siding with the father against him." Dimmesdale thus "affirm[s] unity" with both figures in this Oedipal triangle "without forsaking paternal power" (73). To support his feminization thesis, then, Newfield must ultimately tear Dimmesdale in two by arguing for a kind of schizophrenic parental identification tied to a double psychosexual regression. Would it not have been simpler to say, as Deleuze famously does, that "the formula of masochism is the humiliated father" (60), so that Dimmesdale's identification with his father's masculine failure becomes the masochistic act that ensures his own perpetual humiliation? Instead, Dimmesdale is made to identify with both parents, who simultaneously reject him in tyrannical alliance with each other. Amidst this welter of conflicted identifications and alliances, Prynne is left with little to do but smile and let down her hair (though perhaps that is the point). Arguably, the tyrant in this scene is, instead, Newfield's overuse of the Oedipal crisis, which seems to impose, whichever way you turn it, a compulsory heterosexuality that precludes a much more straightforward and plausible solution to Dimmesdale's erotic conundrum: that pain is the necessary avenue through which Dimmesdale receives the greatest erotic pleasure, and that Chillingworth, as bestower of the greatest pain, is thus able to give Dimmesdale the most profoundly pleasurable erotic response. Shifting Dimmesdale's sexual sensibility in this way, so that he is seen as motivated by the most clear-cut pleasure path rather than an entanglement of putative parental relations, renews Chillingworth's significance in the sexual dynamics of the narrative. No longer Dimmesdale's domineering rival, Chillingworth comes to look more convincingly like Dimmesdale's closeted lover.

To make this argument clear, however, Chillingworth's erotic life needs a second look. While recent critics have, indeed, been willing to see crucial aspects of Chillingworth's behavior as queer, thus bypassing the hazards of compulsory heterosexuality detailed above, they have yet been hampered by Foucault's well-known proclamation that homosexuality, as a discrete identity, emerged no earlier than 1870 (4)--twenty years after The Scarlet Letter was published and more than two hundred years after it was set. Regarding this historical interpretation as fact, many scholars have been reluctant to posit the existence of homosexual subjectivity in The Scarlet Letter--or in any antebellum novel, for that matter. Rather than seeing queer characters, critics have tended to focus on the presence of homosexuality as a series of disconnected instances: acts not identities. Americanists as significant as Peter Coviello have insisted that early nineteenth-century homosexuality existed as a series of "conceptions of sexual possibility" that "disappeared from view with the advent of modern taxonomies of sexuality" at the end of the century (21). Thus Brant Torres, in an otherwise brilliant reading of The Scarlet Letter, follows Coviello's lead and flattens out Chillingworths queer sexuality to a mere "potentiality" rather than a realized temperament (150). And Scott S. Derrick's landmark chapter on Chillingworth, while making significant strides in exploring the character's complex sexuality, nevertheless denominates Chillingworth "the (pre)homosexual in the text" (36) rather than plainly and enduringly queer.

However, to reduce Chillingworths queerness to an ephemeral "potentiality" is, arguably, to debilitate a vital tension from the narrative. What makes Chillingworth so threatening, and so sadistically powerful, has as much to do with who he is as what he does. It is, at bottom, Chillingworth's haunting, queer presence that is so disturbing--and, I will argue, so perversely pleasurable--to the hapless Dimmesdale. Critics who have taken Foucault's word as foundational would thus be wise to heed David Greven's caution: that the reduction of antebellum representations of homosexuality to a series of unrelated queer practices amounts to the confinement of non-normative sexuality to "a pool of surface sensualities," an inherently trivializing intellectual move (34). The possibilities of queer depths that require layered subjectivities operating in a social world of multi-vectored desire inevitably evaporate under such straitened (and straightened) terms, and the work of antebellum codes that made the unspeakable simultaneously legible to antebellum audiences as code remains enduringly invisible to contemporary readers who place unquestioning faith in the Foucauldian paradigm.

Among the coded figures through which queer men could be covertly seen and heard in nineteenth-century fiction, none was more significant than the bachelor. The bachelor served at once as an entirely conventional bourgeois emblem of the pre-married man and also, by turns, as an embodiment of what Vincent J. Bertolini has famously called "the transgressive triple threat of masturbation, whoremongering, and that nameless horror--homosexual sex" (20). As an assemblage of such contradictions, these men, unmoored by heterosexual marriage, also signaled what Katherine V. Snyder describes as "the presence of the perverse within what has been conventionally demarcated as masculine heteronormativity" (5, Snyder's emphasis). "Perversions" that included "alternative, counternormative, or 'queer' masculine sexualities and genderings" (Snyder 5) were thus borne along inside the bachelor's natty topcoat and hidden, as it were, in plain sight for readers who could say no more than authors could, as the latter gave the former a knowing wink.

Bachelors of the "counternormative" variety--and, to be sure, not all bachelor figures in nineteenth-century literature fit this description--were thus more than just the enactors of "surface sensualities." Their surfaces were, after all, frequently presented as veneers without reproach. The threat was in their depths, their hidden psychological spaces, where they schemed against the mores of middle-class decorum. Bachelors of this variety, then, were fashioned as sensibilities, subjectivities--actors as well as the performers of acts. Hawthorne must surely have been aware of the complex interlayering such bachelor figures required when he gave his readers Chillingworth, the consummate bachelor in temperament (read: consummate queer man), however married he might have been in name: a name, by the romance's beginning, he had already discarded for the bachelor-coded "Chillingworth." From his first appearance, "stricken with years" and "misshapen" (1:58), to his last words to fellow bachelor, Dimmesdale: "Thou hast escaped me!" (1:256), Chillingworth's queer bachelorhood contributes crucially to the homoerotics of the romance. Given a textuality buzzing with as much erotic charge as The Scarlet Letter contains, is it possible to hear in this bachelor's parting words to the man of his singular obsession not the anguish of a bested opponent but rather a sadomasochistic love cry, uttered by a stricken lover capable of signaling through his anguish the strangest of affections?

Cenci's Echoes

Consider, for example, the description of Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letters well-known violation scene, in which the physician "thrust aside" Dimmesdale's "vestment" to gaze at the bare chest of his patient while Dimmesdale tosses in a fitful sleep in his boardinghouse room. The exposure appears to be shaming to Dimmesdale, who "shudder[s]" as he lies there unconscious, open to Chillingworth's devouring gaze. The sadism--that is, the imposition of pain to generate erotic pleasure--in Chillingworth's stripping is difficult to miss. Turning from the denuded minister, Chillingworth registers his pleasure in "a wild look of wonder, joy, and horror" and in "a ghastly rapture ... bursting forth through the whole ugliness of his figure, and making itself even riotously manifest by the extravagant gestures with which he threw up his arms towards the ceiling and stamped his foot upon the floor!" (1:138). What are we to make of the physician's spastic contortions in response to his beholding what we are led to believe is a visible scar--an A--possibly cut by Dimmesdale himself to expiate his shame over his adulterous affair with Hester Prynne and his subsequent public silence? The sheer magnitude of Chillingworth's "extravagant gestures" suggests something not just ecstatic but orgasmic.

Grotesque as Chillingworth's sexual climax might be, his contortions perform a distinctly gothic version of erotic bodily pleasure that elaborates the queer code Hawthorne is working from. Here he merges Chillingworth's bachelor status, already signaling an unspoken homoeroticism, with a gothic wildness that elevates the physician's erotic register. Chillingworth's "extravagant gestures" exceed the decorum of bachelorhood, evoking, instead, a well-established equivalence between homosexual desire and "gothic ... figures" who, as Ellen Brinks makes clear, "require supernaturalized fantasy formations" in order to maintain "psychosexual coherence" in the face of the psychic "dissolution" that homosexual experience was thought to produce (12, 18). What separates the bachelor queer from the gothic queer, then, is the front of conventionality with which nineteenth-century bachelor figures passed as straight men in the public sphere. As Chillingworth initiates his sadomasochistic encounter with Dimmesdale, however, his front slips away, at which point the counternormative sexuality that Chillingworth has been hiding within him all this time emerges in a state of high arousal. Such is the effect of Dimmesdale's pain on the predatory physician. It is, in fact, the visual spectacle of Dimmesdale's torment alone that launches Chillingworth's jouisance, not genital contact. Such is the potency of sadomasochism in Dimmesdale's closet.

What, though, of the moment before Dimmesdale's stripping? Of Chillingworth's arousal, as with many things, Hawthorne's narrator is notoriously silent. Were Chillingworth to vocalize the swelling of his "ghastly rapture," however, he might well sound something like this:
   My blood is running up and down my veins;
   A fearful pleasure makes it prick and tingle:
   I feel a giddy sickness of strange awe;
   My heart is beating with ...
   [A] horrid joy. (Shelley 4.1.163-67)

The above, an excerpt from Francesco Cenci's curse of his ill-fated daughter, Beatrice, declaims Chillingworth's state of erotic anticipation with uncanny precision. In the play, Cenci has already violated Beatrice, and desires to do so again, having had his predatory appetite whetted. Cenci's deeply disturbing monologue proclaims an unmitigated, insatiable lust, and this is the keynote that reverberates through Chillingworth's desire for and erotic experience of Dimmesdale. Cenci's "fearful pleasure" becomes Chillingworth's "rapture." Cenci's profession of a "heart ... beating with ... / [a] horrid joy" anticipates Chillingworth's own fast beating heart as he throws aside Dimmesdale's clothing to behold him and provoke, in response, Dimmesdale's "shudder[ ]." The "giddy sickness" of which Cenci boasts is staged, in Hawthorne's revision, as the "extravagant gestures with which" Chillingworth lifts "his arms towards the ceiling and stamp[s] his foot upon the floor" after gazing at the object of his attraction. And Cenci's "awe" is Chillingworth's orgasm. Shelley's rendering of the "heart" of the late Renaissance nobleman has, to recapitulate Hillard's famous question to Hawthorne, clearly taught Hawthorne something vital about the heart's "morbid anatomy" that has helped him shape his monomaniacal physician. And Hawthorne's knowledge of the heart's "morbid" potential not only makes Chillingworth and Dimmesdale's sadomasochistic relationship possible, but also bestows on that relationship the most unexpected quality of mutual pleasure--in distincr departure from the Cenci plot. Cenci is an irredeemable sadist, not a partner engaged in sadomasochistic sex, for which "[c]onsensuality," as Moser and Kleinplatz remind us, is essential (4). Chillingworth, in contrast, is one such sadomasochist.

Unlike The Cenci, then, with its famous curse scene that only quickens the pace to Beatrice's justifiable revenge, Dimmesdale's stripping conduces to quite an opposite end: the production of deep, erotic intimacy between ostensible enemies. For Chillingworth, the erotic height in his assumption of absolute control over Dimmesdale is clear. After Dimmesdale's denudation, the narrator muses:
   A revelation, [Chillingworth] could almost say, had been granted
   to him. It mattered little, for his object, whether celestial, or
   from what other region. By its aid, in all the subsequent relations
   betwixt him and Mr. Dimmesdale, not merely the external presence,
   but the very inmost soul, of the latter, seemed to be brought
   out before his eyes, so that he could see and comprehend its every
   movement. He became, thenceforth, not a spectator only, but a
   chief actor, in the poor minister's interior world. He could play
   upon him as he chose. Would he arouse him with a throb of
   agony? The victim was forever on the rack; it needed only to
   know the spring that controlled the engine;--and the physician
   knew it well! Would he startle him with sudden fear? As at the
   waving of a magician's wand, uprose a grisly phantom,--uprose
   a thousand phantoms,--in many shapes, of death, or more awful
   shame, all flocking round about the clergyman, and pointing
   with their fingers at his breast! (1:140)

The bodily "revelation" that so thrilled Chillingworth can be seen, in the terms of his unfolding sadomasochistic relationship with Dimmesdale, as a sign of Dimmesdale's erotic servitude to pain, the autoerotic masochistic pain that first brought him repeated fits of pleasure alone in his "closet" (1:148) now transformed into the sadomasochistic pain derived from becoming the bottom to Chillingworth's top.

However, as with his response to that first "revelation," Chillingworth discovers the full pleasure of playing with Dimmesdale's "very inmost soul" in a largely muted fashion. The narrator willingly enumerates the physician's strategies of erotic torture while leaving his psychic state largely, if not wholly, opaque. Were he to vocalize that state, Francesco Cenci could well provide the words. In Cenci's boasts to Cardinal Camillo of his sadistic disposition against the quasi-sadistic norms of "other men," for instance, we can hear Chillingworth's own ringing awareness of his sadistic temperament, which his "subsequent relations" with Dimmesdale unfailingly confirm. "All men delight in sensual luxury," Cenci surmises,
   All men enjoy revenge; and most exult
   Over the tortures they can never feel--
   Flattering their secret peace with others' pain.
   But I delight in nothing else. I love
   The sight of agony, and the sense of joy,
   When this shall be another's, and that mine.
   And I have no remorse and little fear,
   Which are, I think, the checks of other men.
   This mood has grown upon me, until now
   Any design my captious fancy makes
   The picture of its wish ...
   Is as my natural food and rest debarred
   Until it be accomplished. (Shelley 1.1.77-91)

Considered as a foreshadowing of Chillingworth's erotic impulses, Cenci's speech serves to emphasize the explicitly sexual features of Chillingworth's alterity, revealed by the physician in the gothic mode when he admits to Hester, "I have already told thee what I am! A fiend!" (1:173). Cenci's monologue, taken as Chillingworth's inner utterance, only deepens our sense of the physician's monstrosity--a monstrosity that both affirms his queerness and also exceeds it to communicate what Valerie Rohy has called the "intolerable logic of sexuality as such" (76). In other words, Chillingworth's insatiable sadomasochistic drive figures not just what would have been regarded, in the nineteenth century, as an aberrant sexuality, but also, as Rohy says, "the deathly insatiability" of sexual desire in any form, normative or counternormative (77).

Dimmesdale's Scourge

It could be said, in fact, that sadomasochism has shown Dimmesdale the way to death. Death is, of course, what Dimmesdale has been preparing himself for all along. His autoerotic mortifications of the flesh in his bedchamber ready him for Chillingworth, who assumes the role of human Dimmesdale's "scourge" (1:148) and beats him until he "shudder[sj " in sadomasochistic ecstasy all the way to his final moments on the scaffold. (5) There, he enacts his final convulsion at the hands of death itself. That Dimmesdale's consummate erotic performance should be public is, of course, no accident. Since shame is an essential element to Dimmesdale's sadomasochistic play--as it is in sadomasochistic practice in general (Hart 139)--the presence of the public eye only serves to increase Dimmesdale's erotic release by heightening his experience of shame. To welcome this shame, then, Dimmesdale begins his last masochistic performance with a public striptease:
   With a convulsive motion, he tore away the ministerial band from
   before his breast. It was revealed! [...] For an instant, the gaze
   of the horror-stricken multitude was concentred on the ghastly
   miracle; while the minister stood, with a flush of triumph in his
   face, as one who, in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory.
   Then, down he sank upon the scaffold! (1:255)

There, spread over Dimmesdale's naked chest, is the very mark that initiated the minister's affair with Chillingworth. And beyond the physical peculiarity of that mark is the simple fact of Dimmesdale's chest, bared before a crowd of Puritan voyeurs. The sheer exhibition of both Dimmesdale's frail body and whatever tattoo might adorn it moves the minister to a state of high arousal, first drawing out "acutest pain," then a bodily "flush" that signals a surge of eros of sufficient voltage to kill him, sated, with his "bright dying eyes" (1:256) caught in the afterglow that, for this performance artist, is masochism's ultimate reward.

Though Dimmesdale is no Beatrice, The Cenci is yet germane in helping us to hear Dimmesdale's final moments differently--or, more precisely, to hear Chillingworth's vexed responses to them. Certainly, Chillingworth's sadomasochistic desire for the minister echoes Cenci's vow to "drag" Beatrice "step by step / Through infamies unheard of among men" (4.1.80-81). Indeed, Chillingworth has similarly "dragged" Dimmesdale through the "infamies" of repeated sadomasochistic encounters during their boardinghouse intimacies, and he emphasizes as much on the scaffold when Dimmesdale beholds his parishioners for the last time. Casting these infamies in topographical terms, Chillingworth says: "[T]here was no one place so secret,--no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me" (1:253). Here, though, the narrative trajectories part, and the echoes cease. For Cenci seeks to "poison and corrupt" Beatrice's "soul" through public shame, so that she "stand[s] shelterless in the broad noon / Of public scorn" (4.1.43, 82-83), while Chillingworth well recognizes that it is only "on this very scaffold" of public shame that Dimmesdale can escape him (1:253). Still, although Dimmesdale's self-exposure seems to cut his masochistic ties to Chillingworth, the narrator's concluding remarks indicate that Dimmesdale might yet be waiting for Chillingworth on the other side, where the sado-love of this world just might transmute into the "golden love" (1:261) of the next. If nothing else, ffawthorne surely recognized that such "golden love" between bachelors was not possible in this--at least not without an intricate and pain-riddled code.

SUNY Cortland


(1) Sallis is paraphrasing the following passage from Walden-. "The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it" (Thoreau 102).

(2) Marilee Strong develops the connection between sadomasochism and the petit mort in her discussion of the late Bob Flanagans masochistic performance art. See A Bright Red Scream, 155.

(3) It is worth noting that Hawthorne scholars as eminent as T. Walter Herbert have followed Newfield in the feminization thesis, arguing, for example, that "Roger [Chillingworth] makes Arthur Dimmesdale into a 'woman'" in order to "project his disavowed emotional torments" onto him (Sexual 98). As with Newfield, one must ask why Dimmesdale needs to be a woman to become such an object of projection, and, further, why "torment" necessarily conduces to subjugation rather than mutual pleasure. A Freudian bias here seems to preclude less heterosexist alternatives.

(4) See Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 43.

(5) David Greven has provocatively noted that, in the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Hawthorne, use of the word "shudder" at times entwines both "male-male desire and its attendant panic" in a single physiological gesture (193). Erotic propulsion and phobic repulsion are thus, in certain contexts, interlinked. This compelling reading could be extended to consider how the sheer physicality of the referent foregrounds realized homosexual desire--that is, the peaking of male sexual experience in the pleasurable abyss. That panic or fear is also interleaved into the range of meanings the nineteenth-century "shudder" can connote lends further weight to a sadomasochistic interpretation of Dimmesdale's relationship to Chillingworth, as fear, for the masochist, Dimmesdale, is ever the precursor to his many convulsions.

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Author:Bender, Geoff
Publication:Nathaniel Hawthorne Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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